As a happening, the Soviet-United States hockey exhibition today might better not have happened. The Soviets won on the scoreboard, 10-3, and the Americans even lost the physical confrontation on the ice, with defenseman Jack O'Callahan probably lost for the Olympics with stretched knee ligaments.

There were no visible protests to the Soviets' appearance in Madison Square Garden, although attendance was only 11,243. Those who came cheered loudly at every opportunity, be it American goal or solid American check. For a patriot, there were insufficient opportunities to celebrate either.

On Thursday, in Erie, Pa., fans were given American flags to wave during the hometown Blades' 9-0 loss to the Soviets. Today an entrepreneur peddled flags outside at $1 apiece and, judging by the half-dozen displayed in the Garden, business was poor.

Banners were prohibited, but one enterprising group raised one for a few minutes before it was detected and unfurled. It read somewhat futilely as it turned out, "Russians are Red, Violets are Blue, Gold Is for U.S., Nothing for U."

The Soviet team is so certain of the gold metal at Lake Placid that U.S. Coach Herb Brooks said, "I not worried about the Russians. They're going to fun away and hide from it. We have to be worried about the Swedes and Czechs."

Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach, suggested that Brooks had been playing possum and said through an interpreter that, "I had the feeling they had a lot in reserve." He also declined to evaluate his team's performance, because to "show the real strength of a team you have to play against a really strong opponent. Only then can you make a judgment."

Tikhonov had some advice for Brooks, saying, "If that team would be a little more restrained, more coldblooded, it would play better. I think you people know where it is has to be more restrained."

The Americans tried hitting everything that moved in the first period and the fans enjoyed the bouncing bodies. The Soviets, however, waited for the inevitable openings and quickly built a 4-0 lead.

"Our early hitting was senseless, not very smart," Brooks conceded. "Just running around trying to hit somebody, to grab somebody, that's bad."

Once the winner had been determined, the Soviets began some bouncing of their own, playing as physical a game as any Soviet team ever has displayed in international competition.

The Soviets were scarcely inhibited by the possibility of U.S. power plays. It was not until their fifth extra-man opportunity that the Americans managed a shot on goal. That was a score by Steve Christoff that made the deficit 9-3 and merely compensated for an earlier short-handed goal by the Soviets.

The officiating, provided by amateurs obtained this morning, was less than scintillating and neither coach was enchanted by it. The Soviets were assessed nine minor penalties to only six for the U.S., but still the fans found reason to chant their usual obscenities.

Actually, the crowd was far more restrained than when the Rangers play traditional rivals like the Islanders. Nothing was thrown on the ice until the game ended, when a roll of toilet paper landed among the departing Soviets.

There were several scuffles among the players, but they were quickly broken up. The closest thing to an incident came when Soviet winger Valeri Kharlamov was slashed across the face by the starting U.S. goalie, Jim Craig.

Kharlamov complained to referee Jim Doyle, then to Craig. U.S. defenseman Mike Ramsey then grabbed Kharlamov's stick and threw it down the ice. When Craig skated off shortly thereafter, Tikhonov shouted at him, pointing to his face.

The first U.S. goal, by Mike Eruzione, was scored while two Soviets were at the other end, exchanging spears with defenseman Bill Baker. The only injury of note, however, to O'Callanah's previously damaged knee, came when he was checked cleanly in center ice by Yuri Lebedev.

Packages and briefcases were checked as fans entered the building and spectators were not permitted to leave on the floor level, as they normally are. Also, concessions employes were restricted from use of the Garden elevators at the floor level.

There were boos when the Soviets came out, when polite applause during most of the individual introductions, with special cheers for goalie Vladislav Tretiak. The U.S. team, of course, was received like returning war heroes.

Some fans sat during the Soviet anthem and there were many loud whistles, but it was not clear how many were in protest or how many were directed at the vocalist, Georgyn Geetlein, and her low neckline and slit skirt.

Ron Raines sang the "Star-Spangled Banner" and raised his fist in the closing bars, to loud roars. Another patriot manipulated the scoreboard to read "U.S. 15 U.S.S.R. 1." It was all a fantasy, however, and the basic question remained: Why was this game played, so close to Tuesday's crucial game between the U.S. and Sweden at Lake Placid?

"Only in the United States do you have this situation," Brooks said. "With the public support of the Olympic effort, you have to raise money. This was a great fund-raiser for the Olympic team."

As a morale raiser, it was something else.